At the same time that Anchorage’s fringe right-wing groups have been organizing, the city’s Democratic Party has been falling apart.
From 2015 until 2020, Democrat Ethan Berkowitz served as the city’s mayor. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Berkowitz’s office issued a number of emergency orders, including mask mandates and business closures, which had become standard across the country. And as with many other cities, the pandemic presented a significant challenge for Anchorage’s relatively large population of unhoused people. In response, Berkowitz and the city assembly laid out plans to help.
On March 21, 2020, the city began using its sports arena and other large venues as temporary shelters. Over the summer, the city proposed using $22.5 million in federal CARES Act funds to buy four properties to house homeless people. Public health advocates and progressives applauded the decisions, but for a set of right-wing Anchorage residents, the decisions amounted to a rallying cry.
In response, a Facebook group called Save Anchorage was created to oppose the COVID-19 related business shutdowns, mask mandates, and homeless shelter expansions. The group held a large protest outside the city assembly on Aug. 25; some protesters arrived carrying firearms. Numerous posts in the group compared Berkowitz to Hitler and threatened violence against city officials. According to the FBI, one Save Anchorage member named Aaron James Mileur stormed the U.S Capitol on Jan. 6 and posted videos from inside the building in the Facebook group. At least 8,000 people have joined the group, which has since been made private. But one person has ensured that its message stays in the public discourse.
During the Aug. 25 event, group member Dave Bronson announced his candidacy for mayor. He was introduced at the protest by Assemblymember Jamie Allard, who herself got in trouble in January after defending people photographed driving through Anchorage with the license plates “FUHRER” and “3REICH” by saying the plates had no offensive connotation. During the protest, Bronson complained that the Ben Boeke arena, a downtown ice skating rink, had been converted to a temporary homeless shelter. He held a sign that said, “Give us back our rinks!”
“I promise you this, as hard as Mayor Berkowitz has worked to buy those four properties, I will work twice as hard to sell them,” Bronson said during the protest.
Bronson’s platform is based on removing the city’s COVID-19 related restrictions, heavily policing the city’s homeless community, and even ratcheting up drug arrests across Anchorage to crack down on people who sleep on city streets. He has made disparaging comments about Muslims, expressed support for anti-LGBTQ pastors and organizations, and posted images of homeless encampments while promising to clear “vagrants” away from Anchorage’s shopping districts.
“Those who choose to live a homeless lifestyle will not be allowed to ruin our businesses and neighborhoods,” Bronson’s website states. “They will be removed from our parks, public streets, and our business and residential areas.”
Bronson’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment. But his fringe candidacy represents a trend in both Anchorage and local politics in general: He’s raised at least $224,000—enough to make him the third-highest funded candidate in the April 6 election. He trails only Democrat Forrest Dunbar and fellow Republican Mike Robbins, who supported former President Donald Trump. (Robbins, a local radio and advertising businessperson who has donated heavily to his own campaign, previously oversaw both a beauty pageant and a dating website in Romania called Romanian American Matrimonial Introduction Services. Critics have pointed out that Robbins has a history of lawsuits filed against his company and that, during financial troubles he experienced during the Great Recession, the IRS filed at least 14 liens against him.)
In a Sept. 28 video posted on Facebook, Bronson called for an end to COVID-19 related emergency orders throughout the city.
Mayor Berkowitz “is spending money, CARES Act money, COVID relief funds, to do things such as buying homeless shelters when he should be using that money to help the small businesses,” Bronson said. “He is using these emergency orders to attack. This needs to end. These emergency orders need to end, and end now.”
Bronson, a 62-year-old former commercial and Air Force pilot, has become a top candidate for mayor. In a year that upended many lives and defied many conventional beliefs, his political rise wasn’t the only surprise in Anchorage.
In October, when he was still mayor, Berkowitz received a voicemail from Maria Athens, a local TV anchor. In the message, she said she’d found out that he had been posting nude photographs on a website frequented by underage children. Berkowitz denies ever doing so, and the person said to be the source for the allegations later told the Anchorage Daily News that Athens had “completely fabricated” her claims.
“You either turn yourself in, kill yourself, or do what you need to do,” Athens stated in the voicemail. “I will personally kill you and [Berkowitz’s wife] Mara Kimmel my goddamn self, you Jewish piece of living fucking shit.” She continued to hurl insults at him.
“I can’t believe I am such a good person and thought I loved you,” Athens continued. “I fucking hate—I don’t even hate you. I will pray for your Zionist fucking ass, you piece of shit loser. And I’m putting this on the news tonight. Bye! Have a great Friday, you motherfucker!”
Athens then recorded a teaser for the news story she was preparing to run on Berkowitz and posted the clip on Facebook. In response, the mayor sent a denial to the TV station, called the allegations defamatory, and suggested that Athens was mentally unwell. Athens then posted a photo that she alleged was of Berkowitz’s nude backside. But the news package never ran. According to charging paperwork later posted online, Athens was arrested that day after allegedly assaulting her significant other, who was also the station manager at her TV station. She has pleaded not guilty to charges that include assault, criminal mischief, and disorderly conduct. Her case remains open.
The FBI and Anchorage Police Department ultimately found no evidence that Berkowitz had been communicating inappropriately with children. But Berkowitz, who is married, resigned anyway after admitting that years ago he’d engaged in what he called a “consensual inappropriate messaging relationship” with Athens.
City Assemblymember Austin Quinn-Davidson, a political independent and self-described progressive, was named Anchorage’s acting mayor. (She’s the city’s first female and first LGBTQ mayor.) In November, she signed an emergency order mandating mask-wearing in public, a move that has further enraged Anchorage’s militant fringe elements. Quinn-Davidson is not running for re-election as mayor. So far, her fellow assemblymember, Dunbar, is the leading candidate.
In an interview with The Appeal, Dunbar said he believes that the best way to fight homelessness is to invest in behavioral, drug, and mental health counseling while also ensuring that the city has enough shelter beds to house people who need help. Dunbar said he tends to favor issuing vouchers for homeless residents to find rooms to stay in, rather than buying entire properties to house them. During his tenure on the assembly, Dunbar has helped the city hire 100 more police officers. But he noted that he also co-sponsored the city’s pilot mental health first-responder program, which will dispatch trained mental health professionals to help people in crisis, rather than police officers. Dunbar told The Appeal he’d like to expand the program as mayor.
“This takes 7,000 calls out of the APD [Anchorage Police Department] stack, so they can focus on things like domestic violence or sexual violence, which unforunately occur at very high rates in Anchorage,” he said.
All the while, Save Anchorage members have helped turn Bronson into a viable candidate, and Dunbar said he’s worried the group is loud enough to potentially push Bronson into a runoff race. There is at least one sign that may be true: In September, after Bronson and Save Anchorage disrupted city assembly meetings, the city caved and reopened the Ben Boeke arena for skating.